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Steven Soderbergh, an MMA Fighter, and Five Stars Walk Into a Spy Movie

‘Haywire’ is the ‘Logan Lucky’ director’s minimal masterwork—a genre experiment that strips away everything (even star Gina Carano’s voice) and gets down to the bare bones

Relativity Media/Ringer illustration

Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 excursion into the espionage genre, is at its core a simple movie. The clutter of the plot, which comprises a pile-up of flashbacks and double-crosses, is a distraction. Where it counts, the film has the shape of a flat, straight line, dotted at regular intervals by fight sequences. Each of these pit ex-MMA star Gina Carano—playing ex-Marine Mallory Kane—against a bigger, stronger male rival played by a famous and accomplished actor.

In the opening scene, Carano wrestles a bulked-up Channing Tatum to a draw that leaves them both wounded and woozy.

Later, she chokes out Michael Fassbender, hobbles Ewan McGregor, and gets the drop on Antonio Banderas. After a while, these (wo)mano-a-mano encounters begin to feel predictable; each time Mallory gets in her stance, it’s as if the film has hit the reset button.

This repetitiveness is a feature, not a bug. In terms of its casting, structure, and style, Haywire is an oddity: a B-movie scattered with A-list movie stars cast as ciphers. Calling it “stripped down” doesn’t quite cut it: It’s more like a Bourne-style spy thriller that’s had the hood popped to expose the pistons pumping away underneath. The dialogue is sparse, the sound design is skeletal, the emotional stakes are muted. Mallory’s attempts to clear her name after being framed by her bosses for a politically motivated murder make dramatic sense, but we’re never really drawn into her plight, nor do we ever share her point of view. Instead, the film observes its heroine from a wary, carefully measured distance.

Over the past 30 years, Soderbergh has taken on the role of America’s most versatile auteur: the man who never makes the same movie twice. With the exception of the Ocean’s series—which, by unlucky number Thirteen, had shaded into shamefaced, victory-lapping self-parody—he prides himself on a lack of repetition. Conventional wisdom goes that Soderbergh is a “one for them, one for me” sort of artist, leveraging Hollywood hits against smaller, more “personal” projects. But his commercial projects are, in their way, completely eccentric.

Before his abortive, Michael Jordan–style “retirement” in 2013, Soderbergh went on a prolific run of tricky, deceptive mainstream entertainments. In Che and Contagion, he methodically deconstructed the themes and presentation of historical biopics and all-star disaster flicks, respectively; next, Magic Mike revised the old-school musical revue, and then Side Effects spoofed the hothouse hospital horror of Michael Crichton via the visual style of Alfred Hitchcock.

Haywire was made out of a similar impulse, and while the end result was a box-office failure—it made about as much in its entire theatrical release as Magic Mike managed in its opening weekend—it stands as the apex of its creator’s playful late-career experimentalism. Like Out of Sight, it’s partially an homage: In interviews, Soderbergh said that his aim was to harness some of the blunt, snub-nosed impact of 1960s spy movies like The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as novelist Len Deighton’s iconic MI5 operative, Harry Palmer, or the early, comparatively pared-down James Bond adaptations. He enlisted Lem Dobbs, who wrote the marvelous revenge saga The Limey—arguably Soderbergh’s best film, and itself a tribute to ornery ’60s genre fare like Point Blank—to whip up a script in a similar vein.

The twist was flipping the gender of the protagonist, which occurred to Soderbergh after he caught Carano doing her thing on television and decided to build the entire movie around her—a risk that was also in some ways a hedging of box-office bets. “At the end of the day,” he told Cinema Blend, “she was like the fifth-most Googled person in the world.”

Carano may have been world-famous when she agreed to make Haywire, but she was also in a vulnerable position. Her aura of invincibility had been tarnished by a loss to Cris “Cyborg” Santos, and a stint on the rebooted American Gladiators didn’t do a ton for her personal brand. Unlike Sasha Grey, who riffed on her adult-video image in Soderbergh’s mesmerizing 2009 drama, The Girlfriend Experience, Carano didn’t come to the movie equipped to play games with her own persona. One of the reasons that so many professional wrestlers have transitioned successfully into movies is that their job training involves learning to play to the camera while taking bumps. Mixed martial arts involves less stagecraft, so its stars don’t necessarily cultivate big personalities. In a business where bluster is often violently snuffed out, it’s better to speak softly and carry a big strike. It was ultimately Carano’s voice that gave her the most trouble during her star turn. After viewing the footage, Soderbergh made the audacious decision to electronically alter Carano’s voice, essentially redubbing her entire performance. “[He] wanted Mallory Kane to be a completely different entity,” said Carano, who took the news in stride.

A case can be made for Soderbergh’s post-production intervention as an example of a director boldly doing what’s best for his film, or perhaps undermining an inexperienced performer who he had put in a difficult position in the first place. Either way, the choice opens Haywire up to some provocative analysis. In a film whose heroine is a woman of few words but still consistently talked over and around by the men in her professional circle, the erasure of Carano’s voice carries thematic weight. “[It] could be read as silencing,” wrote Kiva Reardon in the feminist film journal cléo, “[but] Carano is never truly quiet on screen … a physical presence in nearly every scene, she communicates, as it were, through a pure bodily performance. Mallory’s body propels the film (and narrative) forward, as the camera seemingly struggles to keep pace with her.”

Soderbergh’s solution to capturing such a fluid, intuitive performer is to frame her predominantly in medium and long shots. “I don’t like the kind of cutting where you don’t know where you are,” Soderbergh told The A.V. Club, and Haywire’s fight scenes are choreographed not only for maximum spatial coherence, but also to show off the fact that there are no stunt performers involved. Given Carano’s experience, she took the lead in most of the rehearsals with her costars, and the centerpiece hotel-room throw-down pitting her against Fassbender (who’s first hilariously suave and then perfectly hateful as an MI6 agent posing as Mallory’s husband while secretly plotting to kill her) was a bruising affair. The shot where Carano gets thrown through the air into a wall-mounted flat-screen television was attempted only once. (She nailed it on the first try.)

Reviewing Haywire in The New York Times, A.O. Scott suggested that the film’s spartan realism “serves as Mr. Soderbergh’s critique of current trends in action filmmaking—a repudiation of the quick-cut aesthetic favored by directors like Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass.” It might seem like a waste of effort to make an entire movie just to throw shade at one’s competitors, but it fits with Soderbergh’s cerebral mandate.

The screenplay has its share of pointed, winking one-liners, as when Mallory complains about being asked to be “eye candy” (a line that applies equally to Carano in her new, glamorous context), but Haywire’s feminism is ultimately less subversive than its minimalism: its perverse, borderline-hilarious refusal to make anything going on in its lean, self-contained story line seem like a big deal. This detachment isn’t so much sociopathic as it is satirical, and the joke is on the genre itself. Soderbergh’s film has zero pretense and zero body fat, making it a mirror of its own ruthless, efficient main character. It may not be more than an exercise, but it’s an uncommonly limber and invigorating one.